St. Olaf College | News

An outdoor sanctuary in our own backyard

Members of the women's cross country team run on a path through tall grasses in the Natural Lands with the St. Olaf campus and wind turbine in the background.
Members of the St. Olaf women’s cross country team practice in the Natural Lands.

Although cold Minnesota winters often keep students cozied up in dorm rooms or corners of the library, Oles love to get outside. And St. Olaf College’s Natural Lands provide a space where members of the campus community can explore, exercise, and recharge. 

Comprising 350 acres of natural habitat, the Natural Lands provide the St. Olaf community with an outdoor space for recreation and athletics. In a typical year, St. Olaf varsity sports teams use the Natural Lands to practice during beautiful fall and spring days, student organizations such as Oles Under the Sun (OUTS) arrange outdoor events in the open fields and paths, and individuals use the space to decompress on their own or with friends. This year, with many activities scaled back in response to COVID-19, the vast recreation space provided by the Natural Lands has become even more important.

With many trails for walking and running, it is an especially important part of campus for the cross country and track teams to practice and race. During the fall and spring seasons, the long-distance runners use the Natural Lands on a weekly basis for workouts. In the fall, the cross country teams also host meets on the trails. 

“We are so fortunate at St. Olaf to have an amazing grounds crew that takes such care and pride in our Natural Lands; our cross country course is one of the best in the country and people love coming to St. Olaf to compete on the trails,” says Head Women’s Cross Country Coach and Assistant Women’s Track and Field Coach Erica Maker. 

St. Olaf was slated to host several important competitions this fall, including the MIAC Championships and the NCAA Division III Central Region Championships, which is the qualifier for the NCAA Division III Championships. However, the fall cross country season has been postponed to spring 2021 due to COVID-19, and the details of the spring season are still uncertain. 

“If we do get some semblance of a season in the spring, St. Olaf will definitely be the place to run and we are still committed to hosting the MIAC Championships if there is one,” Maker says.  “In 2021, we are slated to once again host the NCAA Regional Championships so we are excited to showcase the course at that time. Even though we will not compete on the Natural Lands this fall, they will be greatly used by our cross country teams and, I imagine, the St. Olaf community in general, as everyone strives to stay outdoors. Maybe the silver lining in all of this is how many more students, faculty, and staff will find and explore the Natural Lands this fall and take advantage of all it has to offer.”

The photos in the album below were taken in the Natural Lands last year.

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Aside from giving the team a space to compete, the Natural Lands also help the cross country runners prepare well for these competitions. The trails are softer than paved roads and the indoor track, so they provide a surface that is easier on the athletes’ legs and help prevent running injuries. Running in the Natural Lands also allows the athletes to practice more safely away from road traffic. Beyond the physical benefits, practicing outdoors strengthens the runners’ mental game as well.

“Being outside is freeing. It allows us to vary our runs and refreshes the mind and body,” Maker says. “The athletes tend to have more of a spark in their stride when they get outdoors after a long winter, and we always see great leaps in performance when we start running outside on the trails on a regular basis.” 

Athletes aren’t the only ones who reap the restorative benefits of the Natural Lands. The St. Olaf Outdoor Recreation Program, or STORP, provides the St. Olaf community with equipment for exploring the woods, prairies, and trails of the Natural Lands as well as local and regional parks. Through STORP, students, faculty, and staff can rent gear for camping, hiking, skiing, snowshoeing, and other outdoor activities. Led by Director of Recreation Judy Tegtmeyer, STORP encourages students to take advantage of all the beautiful natural spaces available to them on campus and around Northfield. 

“Students benefit from STORP by having access to equipment at very low fees over breaks or for free over weekends that enable them to enjoy the Natural Lands in any season,” Tegtmeyer says. In addition, STORP helps students develop important skills beyond what they learn in the classroom.  Tegtmeyer sees how students use STORP’s resources to “take initiative and plan and lead their own trips which allows them to build skills in logistics, leadership, group dynamics, organization, funding and finances.”

Though STORP will not be operating this fall due to COVID-19, Tegtmeyer hopes that cross country skiing and snowshoe rentals will be available for the winter. “We are encouraging students to exercise outside this fall by enjoying the Natural Lands by walking, hiking, running, or taking time to relax in the surroundings,” Tegtmeyer says. 

Most importantly, the Natural Lands are an accessible part of campus where students have the freedom to rejuvenate and reconnect with nature. Considering that even just ten minutes outside can have positive benefits on students’ mental health, the Natural Lands provide an invaluable resource for those who are experiencing stress or anxiety. Whether they’re gearing up for a long hike along the trails or just enjoying a few minutes amidst the trees and sunshine, students can find a sense of peace in the Natural Lands amidst the demands of a busy college schedule. 

“What we love most about the Natural Lands is the beauty of the trails and fields, the peaceful atmosphere after a long day of class and studying, where we can forget about the stress of academics and the day and get out in nature and do what we love to do,” Maker says.  “We often take for granted this amazing resource, but it is unique to St. Olaf.”